In a recent Papal audience, Pope Francis took up the issue of fatherhood and its role in the family and in civilization. While recognizing that there have always been cases of authoritarian, overbearing fathers who did not respect the personal needs of their children, he chronicles how there is now a shift "from one extreme to the other." Freedom from oppression by an abusive or domineering father may be a good thing, but the need for firm guidance and clarity in the human condition remains.
Currently, the pontiff decries, it is the absence and inaction of fathers that is problematic. While some fathers have been alienated from their families by their own failing or the unjust hostility of their spouses, others are so focused on themselves, their work and individual accomplishments, that they "forget even the family, neglecting their children…not playing with (them), and not spending time with (them)." He further makes clear the consequences of this absence: "The transgressions of children and adolescents can be attributed to this neglect, to missing examples and authoritative guides in their daily life, the lack of closeness and love on the part of fathers."
Understanding the economic pressure on many fathers, Pope Francis emphasized that it is not only families where the father is physically absent that are of concern. He also suggests how the emotional absence of those physically present is problematic: "they don't communicate with their children; they don't fulfill their role as educators; they don't give their children, through their example and their words, the principles, values and life lessons that they need as much as their daily bread." The Holy Father also takes issue with a different form of emotional harm, fathers who focus only on being their child's friend, and neglect to provide structure and guidance.
This perspective is supported by the science of parenting and family life, where the evidence overwhelmingly shows that parental involvement makes a positive difference, for example, in educational achievement (this finding transcends, by the way, income level or cultural background). The tag line of "quality time" being more important than "quantity time" has some truth to it, but one can't be genuinely involved without showing up (with all due respect to those "face timing" into their child's spelling bee or flute solo). However, it is not as simple as "quality" or "quantity," but rather what a father does with the time he dedicates to his children. All too often in the current age we see fathers 'with' their children, but not 'being with' their children, as each is immersed in his own PEDs, the ultimate in "un-quality." Research has found that the value of father involvement is determined by the nature of the interaction between fathers and their children - for example, a father's responsiveness to the needs of his child - rather than the amount of time fathers spend with their children.
While the "right" way for fathers to be involved naturally depends on a host of individual circumstances, there are some general principles that are fairly standard: for younger children these include playing together, being nearby while a child explores, and taking a child for health checkups. As children grow, fathers' involvement has significant effects as they model for their sons how to manage life's challenges. Your children are watching: observing how you as a father are taking responsibility for your actions, coping with the world outside of the family, and making choices about matters of morality and conscience. And this, of course, includes how you support their mother and the family, where they learn from you ways of being empathic to others and forming meaningful, emotionally-intimate relationships. All this being said, it is important not to minimize also the way in which fathers impact their children's academic development as well.
Pope Francis' remarks, then, are not rhetorical or merely spiritually-motivated proclamations of theological truths. They reflect a deep and abiding need for fathers to return to active mentoring, guiding, and connected relationships with their children. The common barriers of time, work, and, for some, cultural and language complications, must be recognized and overcome, perhaps through societal and institutional changes in time; but, most urgently and immediately, each one of us fathers must make a strong, clear choice to be who our children need us to be before all else.